The Wizards’ Sidekick Has Become the Star. But Can the Former Star Become the Sidekick?

John Wall’s 42-point performance on the road to eliminate the Hawks in the first round of the 2017 playoffs feels like forever ago. Long before leg injuries robbed him of the entire 2019-20 season, and many games before that, Wall was the Washington Wizards’ engine, darting down the court on the break and throwing down dunks after burning defenders with one quick move.

Bradley Beal had 31 points that night, but the Wizards were Wall’s show. He possessed the ball for 11 minutes per game that series while Beal was a distant second on the team, averaging only 2.8 minutes. Wall had the ball in his hands for more minutes per game than any player in the NBA from 2013-14 to 2018-19, per NBA Advanced Stats. Wall was the star and Beal was the sidekick, and though there wasn’t always harmony between the two, or even among the team at large, the hierarchy worked. The Wizards made four postseason appearances, and at one point were seen as one of the NBA’s rising young teams.

This season, Beal took command. With Wall out since December 2018 due to Achilles injuries, Beal averaged 30.5 points and 6.1 assists with a 57.9 true shooting percentage this season, numbers that have been exceeded in a single season by only Oscar Robertson, Michael Jordan, and James Harden. But the Wizards have treaded water at 24-40, and though they made the cut to resume play in Orlando later this month, their season is basically over: Wall, Beal (rotator cuff injury), and breakthrough stretch big Davis Bertans (free agency) will all sit out the restart. To qualify for the postseason play-in tournament, the Wizards would need to win two or more games than the Nets or Magic with only eight games to play. Good luck doing that when Ish Smith, Troy Brown Jr., and Rui Hachimura are your new Big Three.

The Wizards will have to use this time to evaluate their young players, because now it’s all about the future. Wall will be back next season, alongside Beal. But for this to work in Washington, Wall and Beal must coexist. “I’m getting back to being healthier than I’ve ever been, and Brad is just getting better and better,” Wall told me recently. “I can’t wait to see what we can be together.”

Wall and Beal haven’t always seen eye to eye; their drama has been more public than most high school gossip. In 2016, Wall admitted that he and Beal “have a tendency to dislike each other on the court.” After Wall underwent arthroscopic knee surgery in 2018, the Wizards rattled off five straight wins and Beal used the phrase “everybody eats” since the ball was moving better, which rubbed Wall the wrong way.

But in recent months, Wall and Beal seem to have grown close. “I’ve had like a PhD in coaching younger players,” Wizards head coach Scott Brooks said last month. Brooks coached Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, and James Harden in Oklahoma City. Now he’s putting his advanced degree to work in D.C. “John and Brad have grown. They’ve already got a big piece of the NBA pie. They’re qualified. They are multiple-time All-Stars with many individual accolades. Now it’s about winning and creating their legacy.”

John Wall and Bradley Beal march with other Wizards and Mystics players during a Juneteenth march in Washington, D.C.
Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

After Wall’s mother died from cancer last December, Wall said the first person to go visit him in North Carolina was Beal. In recent months, Wall and Beal have marched together at protests in Washington. That connection has extended to basketball, too. Behind the scenes, they are at work to assure they can fit together better than ever.

It all started with Beal’s new deal. With Wall already expected to miss the season and the Wizards facing a rebuild after finally deposing longtime president of basketball ops Ernie Grunfeld, Beal committed to Washington last summer, signing a two-year, $72 million extension that aligns his contract with Wall’s. “When Bradley extended with us, I made him every promise: ‘We’re about winning, but we got to win in a meaningful way,’” said new Wizards general manager Tommy Sheppard. But the clock is already ticking on the Wall-Beal partnership, as each has a player option for the 2022-23 season. If the Wizards keep struggling, they may be the next team to blow it up. Vultures are already circling Washington. During the league’s shutdown, multiple teams—the Lakers, Nets, and Pelicans, among others—reportedly showed interest in Beal. But Beal says he wants to give the Wizards a chance.

“I know what John is capable of doing. I want to give him another opportunity to be able to get healthy, so we can show what we were able to do,” Beal told me in March. At the time, Wall was practicing and looked to have the same level of explosiveness that he did during his prime athletic years. Wall won’t be traveling to Disney World, but for a month, the Wizards wondered whether he could return. “We have a great amount invested in John, and to take any steps back prior to next year would be a travesty,” Sheppard said. “But before the hiatus, it was a point where I looked and said, ‘You know what, John? You’re ready to go. You’re really physically ramped up and getting back.’ Not that he was going to play, but I felt very well that this is the John Wall of old.”

Wall’s leg injuries are severe enough that the Wall of old might never return—especially considering how much of his best attributes are driven by speed and athleticism. But if Wall can tap into his former self, he will return to find a brand-new Beal. Things will need to look a lot different than they did when Wall was dominating the ball in the playoffs. “Back then, it was just me who could really create a lot of plays off the dribble, so I needed the ball in my hands for the offense to be great,” Wall said. “Now, with the level Brad is playing, I don’t need to be a ball-dominant guy. To be honest, I wish it was like that for a long time. But it all comes in time and being patient. I’m happy not being on the ball 24/7, pushing the pace, creating everything. That shit is tiring.”

Wall did seem exhausted before injuries took their toll. He went from an All-Defensive Team candidate to one of the worst defensive guards in the league. On offense, he frequently rested his hands on his knees, not moving an inch after giving up the ball.

During his last full season, in 2017-18, only Dirk Nowitzki, who was 39, and DeMarcus Cousins, who was returning from a ruptured Achilles, played at a slower speed on offense than Wall did, per NBA Advanced Stats. With Beal playing at an elite level, they’ll need to learn to share the ball. “Brad was really great off the ball, but he’s developed into being a phenomenal on-ball playmaker now—and he’s not just a scorer, he’s a playmaker for his team,” Brooks said. “John is really incredible with the ball, but in order for us to take it to another level, he is going to need to get better off the ball.”

Over the past year, Wall and Beal have worked at improving each other’s weaknesses. Beal is helping Wall be more like Beal; Wall is helping Beal be more like Wall. Beal told me that Wall helped him from the sideline by pointing out defensive tendencies and offering tips on certain reads to make as a pick-and-roll playmaker. Wall said that Beal returned the favor by helping him get better off the ball. “Brad tells me all the time, ‘You gotta be ready, so don’t put your hands on your knees. Always be shot-ready,’” Wall said. “I can be better. It’s just about doing it. We all can do a lot if we just put our mind to it. It’s not like I can’t play off-ball.

“Having a guy like Brad is going to make things easier. Now, I don’t need to take some bad shots. I can spot up or cut backdoor, or if Brad gets the ball in transition, I can run the floor. The fact we have somebody like Brad who can play at a high level, I’m fine and willing to do that.”

Wall has made progress as a spot-up shooter, hitting 38 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3s since 2013-14, per NBA Advanced Stats. But being an effective off-ball player is about more than just hitting open 3s. Beal is one of the league’s best players without the ball in his hands because of his ability to move, read defenses, and create space for himself. It’s these little things that Beal is sharing with Wall. “Setup, speed, balance, taking angles, knowing where to be, coming off pindowns,” Beal said are the traits he’s trying to pass on to Wall.

There are few instances of a Beal and Wall making a connection off a Wall cut—they’ve had only three in their careers together, per Synergy Sports. But the flashes are impressive, like this designed lob pass to Wall from the 2016-17 season:

Or this cut Wall made within the flow of the offense during the 2017 playoffs, which is the last time he’s registered a make off a cut:

“We look at John and Bradley as co-point-guards,” Sheppard said. “Playing off the ball is going to be huge for John when he gets back. His usage will certainly go down because it makes him a better weapon.” And Beal’s usage could go up if his seemingly endless upward trajectory continues. Beal said that each offseason he and his trainer, Drew Hanlen, focus on improving select skills. Before the 2016-17 season, Beal eliminated his long 2-pointers; before 2017-18, he improved his finishing at the rim; before 2018-19, it was adding hesitations and shot-creation moves; and before 2019-20, it was generating even more 3s and drawing free throws.

“We watched a lot of James Harden and DeMar DeRozan, seeing how they use angles, use the body, use their arms to draw fouls,” Beal said. The key difference now is when Beal picks up the ball on his drives; he’s doing it earlier to swing his arms through the defender to draw contact, rather than drawing contact and then picking up the ball. The difference can be seen here:

“At first, I hated it because I love to play through contact and didn’t want to put it in my game. I felt like it was kind of taking away from my aggressiveness of hooping,” Beal said. “But then I just tried it early in the season, and I got to the line like five times off of it. I was like, ‘OK. Well, damn. This really does work, so let me just keep doing it.” Beal got to the line eight times per game this season, up from 5.5 times per game last season. He doesn’t draw fouls as often as Harden or DeRozan, but he posted a career-high free throw rate and ranks seventh in the league in attempts per game this season. “The only silver lining with John being out is Brad has really been able to lift his game to places that he probably wouldn’t have gotten to with John being on the floor with him,” Brooks said. “Brad’s development as a basketball player has been really incredible to see. When I first came four years ago, he was a well-rounded player. Now, he’s a top-10 or -15 player.”

It seems like Beal gets better at whatever he sets his mind to. So, what’s next? Hanlen texted me that Beal’s goal is to further extend his shooting range. This season, Beal attempted 33 3-pointers—and made eight—from over 4 feet beyond the 3-point line, per NBA Advanced Stats. Perhaps next season, Beal could also start launching more often; deeper ranger would make him an even more potent threat, which could open more driving lanes for Wall and their teammates.

It might sound like the Wizards could do an impression of the Rockets and Trail Blazers—two offenses that run everything through their star backcourts. But Sheppard said he envisions putting a team of high-IQ players on the court who can shoot and create. My impression is that he wants them to be more like last season’s Raptors, who could play different styles with their stars, and less like the Rockets or Blazers, who pass the ball as infrequently as any team in the NBA. “It gives much more freedom and spacing. You can’t have the ball get stuck,” Sheppard said. Though the results in the standings have yet to come, the Wizards are building that system—they rank sixth in passes per game, and Beal didn’t dominate the ball despite his offensive production. Wall says they’ll be even more dangerous when he can suit up: “With the way the league has changed with all the spacing on the floor to attack the baskets and get 3s, and defenses switching screens so we can attack mismatches, we could get whatever we want.”

As the old coaching adage goes, X’s and O’s don’t mean as much as Jimmys and Joes. Whether the Wizards start winning or not will have a lot to do with what happens to the pieces surrounding Beal and Wall. Sheppard feels the pressure to build a winner, but he’s not making short-sighted moves. That meant letting Tomas Satoransky and Bobby Portis walk for bigger paydays elsewhere, and focusing on cost-effective opportunities for comparably productive players such as signing Ish Smith, acquiring Bertans from the Spurs, and landing young guys like Moe Wagner and Isaac Bonga from the Lakers. Bertans has become one of the best shooters in basketball, and the Wizards hope to re-sign him this offseason. Bonga, at just age 20, is already an effective defender who just needs to develop his jumper. During the season, the Wizards also traded for Jerome Robinson, who was drafted 13th in 2018 by the Clippers. The Wizards will have limited cap space aside from their mid-level exception, so expect them to focus largely on young players and on the draft.

Sheppard said the Wizards have 17 players on their draft board that he’d be happy to take with their first-round pick, which will be no lower than 15th if they miraculously make the postseason without Wall, Beal, or Bertans. If they don’t, they have the ninth-best draft lottery odds. Sheppard likes this draft class, which might lack top-end stars but has plenty of high-end role players. “This draft is looked at by several people as being weaker than recent years. We see it as a great opportunity. This might give us an opportunity to swing for the fences, take a wild card, buy a lottery ticket, if you will,” Sheppard said. “We are probably more focused on bigs, but if there’s someone there we like and he’s got the same position as somebody else that we have, we’re going to take them.”

If they land the ninth pick, USC’s Onyeka Okongwu fits the bill as a defensive-oriented big man who can rim-run on offense. Thomas Bryant has done a fine job after re-signing for $25 million last summer, but can’t defend on the perimeter at the level they need him to. If the Wizards want to gamble, Aleksej Pokusevski comes to mind. Pokusevski is a 7-foot Serbian who shoots and passes like a guard on offense. He’s rail thin, so interior defense could be an issue, but he’s projectably versatile with agility and fluidity on the perimeter. In the modern game, perhaps switchability, not brute strength, is enough for a big.

Wall and Beal during a game against the Nets in February
Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

Defense will be the key for Washington next season. The Wizards allowed opponents to score 115 points per 100 possessions, one of the worst marks in league history. “We scored the ball at an amazing clip this year, but unfortunately so did our opponents,” Sheppard said. “Dribble penetration was a killer on defense.”

In Orlando, Sheppard will get a chance to evaluate which of the Wizards’ current young players can help make the transition to higher stakes next season. Hachimura, who was drafted ninth last year, doesn’t need to be Washington’s best player; Sheppard said they want him to hit open shots, grind on defense, and rebound and then lead the break. He’s shown flashes this season, though he needs to improve as a shooter (27.4 percent from 3) and as a perimeter defender. The same goes for second-year wing Troy Brown Jr., who has showcased impressive playmaking skills and defensive effort, but is too slow-footed against speedy guards. The Wizards sent resistance bands to every player during the shutdown, and Brown has been doing drills to work on his lateral quickness. Orlando is an opportunity to show that it’s helped.

Great teams typically have stars set a tone for everyone else to follow. Beal was a solid defender the last time Wall was healthy, though Beal’s effort on that end plummeted without Wall. Wall became a zero on defense as injuries piled up. He said he dealt with bone spurs in his knee and heel before his Achilles injury. With a lower usage and fresher legs, he plans on getting back to his prior defensive level. “I definitely need to,” Wall said. “I’m getting in the best shape I can. When I was bulky that one season after gaining a bunch of upper-body strength, I was at 215 or 220 [pounds]. You’ll see me next year playing at around 200, 205.”

The Wizards can already score, and they should score even more once Wall returns. Maybe some of the young guys will showcase some improvements in Orlando. Maybe Sheppard can unearth new finds in the draft and free agency. But they already have the star everyone wants in Beal, and they hope that a star will return in Wall. The coming year will decide whether they’ll become the league’s next contender or the next team to trade away a superstar.

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